Fire scene

Baker City Fire Department crews pour water on a warehouse fire the morning of Oct. 27. Baker County used its emergency alert system to notify residents that fire-suppression foam had gotten into the water system.

Dennis Bachman and Jason Yencopal got a surprise on Oct. 27 after using Baker County’s emergency alert system to let Baker City residents know that fire-suppression foam had accidentally entered the water distribution system.

It wasn’t a pleasant surprise.

They realized that the water advisory went to just 250 cellphone owners.

That seemed an awfully low number of these all but ubiquitous devices in a city with a population nudging the 10,000 mark, said Yencopal, the county’s emergency manager, and Bachman, who works for the city’s public works department.

The alert also was sent to 1,178 landline accounts, both residents and businesses. The system calls those numbers automatically, Yencopal said.

But one of the advantages of the county’s system is its ability to also reach people by email, cellphone call or text, or all three, he said. The system is also linked to a free cellphone app, AlertSense.

The county uses the service to alert people to a variety of situations, including wildfire evacuations.

The experience on Oct. 27 prompted Yencopal and Bachman to work together on a campaign to encourage residents across the county to enroll in the free service.

The process, which can be done online, takes a couple of minutes.

The county will test the system on Nov. 19 between 9 a.m. and 11 a.m., and both Yencopal and Bachman hope the enrollment numbers have risen considerably by then.

Yencopal suspects that some people who had signed up for the county’s previous alert system weren’t transferred when the county switched to the current system, which offers users a wider range of potential alerts to receive.

Bachman thinks that might have happened to him.

He said he thought he was signed up for emergency alerts from the county but he didn’t get one on his cellphone on Oct. 27.

That was not an issue for him in that case, since he was among the city employees scrambling to deal with the water issue and was well aware of the details.

But Bachman said he wants to ensure that residents who aren’t in that position — which, after all, is most residents — also have access to the same important information as soon as it’s available.

The alerts are especially vital for water issues, he said, since problems with underground pipes, unlike, say, a fire, aren’t obvious.

The city and county will distribute fliers, which have information about how to sign up, at grocery stores, government offices and many businesses in the county, Bachman said.

When signing up for emergency alerts, users can set up multiple addresses, Yencopal said.

That allows them to receive alerts for issues that affect their home as well as, for instance, the home of a relative who might need help during an emergency.

Yencopal, who administers the system, can set alerts to go to a specific area. The first of two alerts sent on Oct. 27, for instance, went only to a several-block area near where the fire-suppression foam entered the water system. The second alert went citywide.

Residents who have only a landline don’t need to sign up to receive alerts, Yencopal said.

However, people who live within the Baker City limits, have a landline only and either didn’t receive a call on Oct. 27, or wonder whether their number is in the system, can call the Baker County Emergency Operations Center at 541-523-0015. That number will have a recorded message that includes information on how to sign up, or have someone call back to check their enrollment.

To sign up online, go to www.bakercounty.org and click on the link for receiving emergency alerts.

You can also use this direct link: https://public.alertsense.com/signup/?regionid=1357

Yencopal urges residents who sign up to watch for the test alert on Nov. 19. If you’ve signed up and don’t get the test, either register at the above link or call the Emergency Operations Center number to check on your status.

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